The Gold Plates occupy an interesting place in Mormon culture. Though an essential part of the Mormon foundational narrative, the gold plates are not often conversation starters. Take, for example, the 1989 Primary songbook. According to the index, there are sixteen songs about being reverent in church, and an additional three concerned with the need for quiet. In contrast, only two explicitly deal with the gold plates. And when one thinks about Mormon material culture, sacred garments and temple art come more readily to mind than the gold plates. Yet in this paper I want to argue that the gold plates are actually prime examples of Mormon material culture, and that, in fact, the practice of invoking the gold plates in the popular imagination shapes and reflects Mormon culture in significant ways.
I do not claim to offer you all an extensive treatment of material culture studies today, preferring to leave that to others with more time than I. What I wish to do today is illustrate the power of material culture in every day lived religion—starting with a Catholic and Protestant perspective and then ending with a Mormon view. In essence, the material dimension of religion is central to religious experiences, as religion is more than knowledge gained from saints or scriptures. Throughout history, the faithful of all religions have engaged in physical expressions of religion (McDannell 1). The body is the central mediator of religious experience, and material culture physically asserts us in our beliefs (King 5-6). Material culture accentuates how apparently inanimate objects act on people and are acted upon people in order to realize social functions, control social relationships, and give meaning to human enterprise (Woodward 3). While material culture in general might be an indication of the particular subculture or class to which a person belongs, or the occupation and/or status they hold (Woodward 4), material culture that expresses religion has its own specific signifiers. It is through material culture than people learn the habits and discourses of their religious community. After all, symbol systems are not just passed down but must be relearned in every generation, through seeing, doing and touching (McDannell 2). Catholic children are extensively prepared for their first Holy Communion at age seven, but it is when they kneel in their fancy, new, white clothes and touch, see, and even taste the body and blood of Christ that they begin to understand the power of the Eucharist and, in that sense, what it means to be Catholic (figure 1). Encountering the material in religion helps generate religious values, norms, behaviors, and attitudes. It is through images that one becomes religious in a particular manner (McDannell 2). A Catholic might wear a scapular (figure 2) or hang a picture of the Sacred Heart on their wall. A Protestant might have an organ in the living room (figure 3) or a lavish family Bible. A Mormon might see a beehive every time he walked into the kitchen or have a small temple ornament hanging in the Christmas tree (figure 4). In all these instances, the material culture surrounding people is used to construct meaning. Objects are used as a set of theological and cultural tools that respond to people’s spiritual, psychological and social yearnings (McDannell 17). Speaking in a specifically American context, sacred objects have played a large role in practical Christianity since the early Protestant settlers (Noll 258). In fact, “Protestants share with Catholics and Mormons the desire to own, make, manipulate, cherish, sell, and exchange material goods” (McDannell 18). People from different faiths use religious objects in fairly similar ways, as we will see today.
The power of a religious object, which Robert Armstrong calls “affecting presence” (qtd. in McDannell 18), comes into being through those that interact with it. Affecting presence is often closely tied to the emotion produced in a believer (McDannell 25). Let us take this family Bible into consideration. It was sold at auction in 2011, and as one viewer said on her personal blog, “Despite loosing the Bible, it inspired me to want something so beautiful and meaningful in my future family. ... I am determined to find one someday. One that will be filled with notes, papers, letters, and will be passed down from one generation to the next and hopefully preserved for many years” (Living Nazareth). For this woman, the meaning of the Bible lay not as much in its words as it did in the Bible as a repository for memories and a reminder of her love for her family.
Relationships are one of the primary ways in which objects become meaningful (McDannell 4). Take, first of all, the relationship between individuals and Christ. Although Protestant culture is known for being sober, what the Reformation did is not as much get rid of images, but substitute appropriate ones in appropriate places. Saints were felt to be too Catholic, so art figured figures from the Old Testament, placed within their narratives in order to downplay any sense of devotional use (McDannell 26-27). However, in time close-ups of paintings were reproduced, like this one here, Hofmann’s Head of Christ (figure 6). These were accorded a place of honor within the home and slowly began to be used to cultivate a personal relationship with Christ through his image. A similar thing happened with Sallman’s Head of Christ (figure 7), which might be familiar to you. In her book, Material Christianity, Colleen McDannell argues that Protestants “empowered [that image] in much the same way that Catholics find an affecting presence in home shrines” (McDannell 28). Protestants consciously or unconsciously felt that this image of a friendly, personal, involved Christ with such kind eyes could serve as a mediator between them and God (McDannell 30). But material culture also cultivates relationships between people. Giving religious goods as gifts in a social context can build up friendships, as it binds people to the sacred as well as to each other (McDannell 45). In that manner, giving a friend a bookmark for in her Bible on her birthday communicates community affiliation and shared values. Displaying a religious object helps “embed individuals ... within a social world” (King 56). Thus these religious objects represent culture and resonate culturally because the in-crowd, so to speak, recognizes them as their own (Woodward 28). A quick search of Pinterest reveals many, many religious goods given as gifts (figures 8-10). Gifting and receiving these gifts not only demonstrates who is in the group (and who is not), but also teaches how to act and think like Christians through categorization (McDannell 45).
This brings us to anther major use of material culture, namely memory. Through spaces, images, gestures, and objects, we embody memory and try to recreate an authentic past. Take the cross, for example. The sign of the cross, in church, or made at home before meals, is in essence a “condensed commemoration, a narrative made flesh” of the foundational belief of Christianity (King 15). Images and/or objects such as the cross operate as a link in the chain of memory, as one scholar calls the “religious act of recalling a past which gives meaning to the present and contains the future”, and, in so doing, “enables a group of believers to demonstrate publicly and privately that they belong to a distinctive religion” (Hervieu-Leger, qtd. in King 15). Because objects are highly visible assertions of lineage, in that sense, (King 16), they are excellent mediators of religious memory. In fact, material culture often functions to “create a continuous and personal narrative of the past” (Stewart, qtd. in McDannell 41), a narrative that is wholly individual. Taking home a souvenir from a pilgrimage, for example, allows its owner to partake of the power of the original experience (McDannell 41) or pass it on to a third party (King 3), thus perpetuating the chain of memory.
Material culture within Mormonism
At first sight, Mormon culture seems to lack powerful symbols. There is no art in LDS chapels, their church meetings are rather low church and the trays used to pass the sacrament of bread and water, as well as the sacrament itself, are very pragmatic. However, this simplicity is misleading. One only has to look at a temple to see that, as the soaring buildings are usually accompanied by extensively landscaped gardens and the celestial room is explicitly said to mirror the exalted and peaceful state open to eternal families (lds.org) (figure 11). But temples are not the only place where material culture comes into play in a Mormon context. Mormon cities are laid out in a particular way. Mormon homes usually contain an abundance of family photos, reflecting the emphasis on the family. Remembrance books (figure 12) can be found on the shelves. Mormons are likely to have food storage hidden away somewhere, a tangible reminder of the self-sufficiency ingrained in Mormon culture and a practice requiring Mormon cookbooks to learn how to rotate storage foods (figure 13). And let us not forget about funeral potatoes, whether they are made with some kind of cream-based soup or fresh gruyere (figure 14). It should be clear that identity markers abound.
While institutionalization plays a large role in Mormon culture, popular culture freely intersects with more sacred concepts, as it does within mainstream Christianity. In doing so, it creates a hybrid culture in which it is perfectly acceptable to spread the gospel by invoking a tv show, for example (figure 14). Although evangelical Protestants are particularly adept at this practice, Catholic lay members also participate in this, as you can see in this iPray t-shirt, with a design that is likely to be familiar with a lot of you (figure 15).
In a specifically Mormon context, some of you might be familiar with the “Hey, Girl” meme going around the Internet these days. I have selected a couple for you (figure 16-18). I found these on Pinterest, and Mormons are likely to repin them for a couple of reasons: obviously they’re funny and slightly subversive in a Mormon context. They work very well to mark your Mormonism without actually saying, “I’m a Mormon” or pinning a picture of a temple to one of your boards. Repinning them from other Mormons strengthens that community bond. Lastly, appropriating the hey girl meme allows its viewers to enter into a broader conversation, in this case about female desire, while staying safely within a Mormon context.
Speaking of memes, I have one last one to show you. It bridges the gap nicely, as the next section of my paper is about the gold plates in Mormon material culture. But above all, it was too good not to show you. I present to you, Hipster Moroni (figure 19).
The gold plates in Mormon material culture
The gold plates tend to pop up in Mormon material culture where you would expect them, but also where you might not. Let me run you through a quick selection. I’ll start off with some more institutionalized versions, like the Primary song (figure 20). The painting, too, is fairly expected (figure 21). The world fair exhibit is slightly more unusual (figure 22), but seems a fairly good way to tell the world what makes Mormonism special. Then crafts made to resemble the gold plates (figure 23) fall somewhere in the middle, as they are a domestic product that is very much linked to the institutionalized Church through the practice of Family Home Evening. Domestic recreations of institutionalized practices are central to material religion (King 16). Take this early morning seminary activity as an example: the students were given a “gold plate” to chisel their testimony on, to better replicate the original experience. Seeing their testimony set in stone, as it were, was an added bonus. Replicating the gold plates, either at home or at a church activity is a common part of Mormon culture. Displaying the gold plates at home, whether home made or bought, like these, serves the chain of memory well.
However, my interest lies not so much in the institutionalized uses of the gold plates, but the creative ways members use them to their advantage. The following story is my favorite, from the BYU special collections. The story is about “creative dating,” a favorite hobby of Mr. M. (name withheld) during his days at BYU. Creative dating involves coming up with unique and outrageous ways to ask girls out. The story took place in fall 1986, before BYU’s homecoming dance.
The story is about “creative dating,” of which Mr. Magelsen was an aficionado during his days at BYU. Creative dating involves coming up with unique and outrageous ways to ask girls out. The story took place in fall 1986, before BYU’s homecoming dance. “I made golden plates with each leaf having a word on it, asking her to the dance. I buried them in her back yard. Then I got her mother to let me in her home at 2am. I dressed one of my friends up as Angel Moroni. We put flour and hairspray in his hair to make it white and dressed him in a white bed sheet. And we put a big spotlight behind him and snuck into her room and turned the spotlight on. He said something to her, but I can’t remember what it was. He accompanied her to the site where the plates were buried at she dug them up [sic]. And she said yes (Barker)
And while the image of a young man playing Moroni with flour in his hair kind of steals the show, the story illustrates how the gold plates work in Mormon culture quite neatly. By invoking the gold plates in such a manner, the boy demonstrates that he is not only creative but also a good Mormon. He counts on the scenario impressing the girl not only because of the effort involved in casting all this, but also because it speaks to their common religious knowledge and his apparent ability and willingness to incorporate that knowledge into their future lives.
Let’s move on to another example. Baptism cakes (figure 24) use the gold plates to invoke the foundational narrative of Mormonism at an important milestone in a child’s life. When one thinks of the implications of ingesting the gold plates and thus having them become part of a person, the fact that there are many examples of edible gold plates becomes significant. A group of women, when asked, recalled making Rice Krispie gold plates, with licorice rings to bind them together. This was at a church activity. Another remembered receiving two mini chocolates, glued to a piece of paper, and modeled after the gold plates. Another made gingerbread gold plates with her family after finishing a read through of the Book of Mormon (“Creative Uses”). The gold plates clearly invade domestic life and are able to serve as tangible links in the chain of religious memory, at least until eaten.
Or take this rubber stamp (figure 25). It make not have the added significance of being eaten, but like the cakes, a stamp speaks to that part of Mormon culture that values domesticity, in this case through crafting. It also shows its owner’s allegiance to Mormon culture, in use, but also just as a part of someone’s stamp collection.
Action figures like Moroni burying the gold plates (figure 26) offers parents a toy for their children that socializes a child into a particular religious mode of being by reinforcing the Mormon worldview and allowing for insularity of culture. Toys such as these are an important element in religious expression as it allows them to integrate religion into their play world (McDannell 52) and permeate all of life.
Lastly, tie pins (figure 27 and 28) allow members to demonstrate their belonging in an understated way. They most likely belong to the Sunday uniform, thereby not only functioning as a signifier to outsiders, but also and importantly to fellow members. These are explicitly marketed as a missionary gift, by the way, which means they carry the hopes and dreams of many a proud grandma for her grandson that the chain of memory will not be broken, but the Mormon heritage passed on to new generations.
In this paper, I have offered you a snapshot of material culture as it relates to religious experiences. We have seen how people surround themselves with objects that mark their identity, pass on religious memory, and differentiate insiders from outsiders. Although the objects that people interact with are different, religious material culture is used in surprisingly similar ways among Catholics, Protestants, and Mormons.
The focus of this paper was the function of the gold plates in material culture. Institutionalization plays a role in shaping what is seen as acceptable material culture within the Mormon world, but we only have to think of a young Moroni with flour in his hair to recognize the creativity with which Mormons engage with the gold plates in their daily lives. Although the uses of the gold plates in the popular imagination are myriad, and often overlap, several things have become clear. Mormonism has a strong culture of domesticity, and this is reflected in its material culture. Gold plates are not just bought at Deseret Books but also made at home for Family Home Evening. They are made out of metal, but also out of Rice Krispies or cake batter and frosting, and then happily eaten. They are worn on clothing, played with, and shared on the Internet. In replicating the gold plates and mediating them into every day life, the gold plates become links in the chain of memory, helping dispense the original experience that was the angel Moroni giving Joseph Smith the gold plates, and everything that was to follow. Because material culture depends very much on relationships between people, memory is not only generationally spread—so from parents to child—but also horizontally—from church member to church member around the world. In this manner, a web is spun that connects members to each other through their common experiences of the gold plates. It strengthens community differently than, for example, a Fast and Testimony meeting or a ward service activity but I would argue material culture—and thus the gold plates—should not be underestimated in this regard.
And although the gold plates clearly function as identity markers as well, delineating insiders from outsiders in what sometimes seems to be a fairly non-negotiable manner, they are also used in insider culture as well. Invoking the gold plates marks orthodoxy, perhaps, or a way of thinking, or a willingness to publicly announce yourself as a gold-plate-believing Mormon invested in the insularity of Mormon culture.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, as physical reminders of Joseph Smith’s original experience, they act to bring the past into the present. Using the gold plates in daily life in that sense means aligning yourself with the story represented by the gold plates. Otherwise said, invoking the gold plates means actively shaping your life’s story to be a continuation of the story Joseph Smith begun. Material culture, especially if it is slightly kitschy, tends to be dismissed as unimportant or banal. After all, what kind of value can lie in a seven-dollar tie tack or a baking mold? But once we stop judging objects based on their artistic and/or monetary value or gendered position within daily life, it becomes clear that it is the every day, humdrum nature of these objects that give them their power. By being present where every day Mormon life is lived, these objects enwrap Mormons and remind them not only of their past, present, and future, but also of their place in the larger story of Mormonism and the world.
Barker, Jessica L., and Ben Magelsen. Mormon Lore - Creative Dating: Angel Moroni and the Golden Plates. Folklore Archive, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library,Brigham Young University, Provo, UT. Found by Christopher C. Smith
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, comp. Children’s Songbook. Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret, 1991. Print.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "Inside the Temple." LDS.org. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, n.d. Web. 14 July 2012.
"Creative Uses of the Gold Plates." Online interview. 17 July 2012. Feminist Mormon Housewives Facebook group.
King, E. Frances. Material Religion and Popular Culture. New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.
McDannell, Colleen. Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America. New Haven: Yale UP, 1995. Print.
Rebecca. "Old Family Bible." Web log post. Living Nazareth. N.p., 16 May 2011. Web. 8 July 2012.
Woodward, Ian. Understanding Material Culture. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2007. Print.